Songwriters Daphne Willis and Dave Tamkin will share a bill tonight, Friday May 18, at eTown Hall (for more information and to buy tickets click here). The two veteran musicians, who met twelve years ago playing local clubs in Chicago when both were living in the Windy City, have recently released songs with themes related to mental health and issues of self-care. As artists who have or still are involved in heavy touring, Willis and Tamkin have witnessed issues of mental health and addiction firsthand and the tone of their music seems grounded in experience rather than an abstraction of real life struggle. With their music both artists aren’t just trying to raise awareness but to humanize issues that can seem overwhelming and insurmountable.
Right out of college at DePaul, where by coincidence Willis also attended several years later, Tamkin found himself carving out a live music career tapping into the National Association of Campus Activities circuit and performing at colleges and towns across the country for eight years before meeting his future wife, Anne, and asking her to have a drink one night but she told him she didn’t have time for that because she was moving to Boulder. The couple has now been married for a decade. And Tamkin found, around that time, that he had to retool his music career considerably when changes in digital marketing were coming his way.
“Business marketing was my major and I was pretty good at getting people to Myspace at the time” says Tamkin. “Even with your website, owning those emails was your career—being able to have contact with your audience at any time. As soon as Myspace went away, I think I had thirty-thousand fans at the time, my whole career changed. I had to start over and it’s still taking me some time. So I’ve spent the last eight years not touring and rebuilding. So it’s nice to get back at it with a different point of view and I’ve been humbled. I appreciate every gig and audience I get in a way that maybe I didn’t back then.”
Tamkin found that not touring constantly forced him to reevaluate how he related to other people and himself not being on the road for six months at a time. Finding himself intimidated by the talent he found in Colorado, Tamkin took a number of years to get hooked into a local music community. And now, as a talent buyer for The Walnut Room through Homevibe Presents, Tamkin has connected with the local music world that he finds “welcoming and kind.” He also discovered Love Hope Strength Foundation, a group whose “Get On the List” campaign seeks to expand a registry for bone marrow donation and other efforts linked with music to try to help those living with cancer. Around that time he lost his father-in-law and Tamkin has encouraged his fans and peers to contribute to Love Hope Strength to give hope to people in a way that Tamkin couldn’t do for his father-in-law.
Tamkin also wrote the song “May” that was featured on Videos That Matter to address the opioid crisis in America. The brightly moody and uplifting song shines a compassionate light on what leads to abuse of opioids without romanticizing or demonizing anyone’s circumstances.
Willis has been collaborating with songwriters around the world since 2015 through her deal publishing deal with Sony/ATV. The versatile songwriter, whose work seems to know no genre boundaries, got her professional music life started early when her first acoustic EP, released when she was nineteen, got picked up for sublicensing through companies that place music in retail outlets and, at one time, through airline music channels. An executive at Vanguard heard her song on an American Airlines flight when his iPod wasn’t working and subsuently signed Willis for two albums. While that story is the dream of many a songwriter, Willis currently still self-produces much if not all of her own work.
Like everyone in America paying attention, Willis has been aware of issues of mental health and addiction for most of her life. With her father in the music industry for over thirty years in the sales and distribution wing of Sony/BMG, Willis grew up in a musical family and as a professional musician she undoubtedly saw the downside of self-medication and mental health struggles among peers and, it turns out, her own family. She wrote about this vividly and with no small amount of sensitivity in her 2017 song “Somebody’s Someone.”
“It’s autobiographical and it’s about my brother and myself,” says Willis. “It’s about every family that struggles with these issues—which is to say every family in the country has someone that struggles with depression, addiction, ADHD, PTSD [and other issues].”
Willis aimed with her songwriting to bring a more realistic perspective to a problems that seem mysterious and impenetrable to many people, especially thouse caught up in the embrace of psychological issues and addiction for whom the stigma might prevent actually getting help or treating before they become a larger problem.
“It’s become a bigger issue than it should be largely because of the stigma,” says Willis. “These issues are not like they’re not preventable or treatable. We as humans are perfectly capable of supporting each other and healing each other through all these things. But because of the fear and stigma that exists toward all of these things there’s a big barrier and we’re not able to do that. The idea of the song is to create a conversation about it. The point of the song is to take our experiences of these things to make it so basic everyone can understand it and relate to it because everyone has been there or know someone who has. People have been writing about this stuff for centuries. But I feel people have been less direct about it.”
While both Willis and Tamkin have written plenty of songs not about such dire subjects, it’s a testament to their talent, humanity and self-awareness that they’re bringing conversations into the creative zeitgeist. Doing so also highlights their insight into what makes a song work and have resonance not just for themselves but for their audiences. Witness it for yourself tonight or any other time you have a chance to see Willis and Tamkin in their element live on stage.